Longtime educator David Finley is right: we do children no favors by proclaiming "All children can learn." We must acknowledge that children learn differently--and we must insist that politicans acknowledge it too.
I am an educator, and in my profession it is a mortal sin to say that all children cannot learn. Now that I have said it publicly, I will probably lose my job and be excommunicated from my profession. At the very least I am certain it will give Arizona's state superintendent of public instruction a bad case of heartburn.
Perhaps I can redeem myself by rephrasing the statement: All children can learn but all children cannot learn as much as all other children. And all children cannot learn to some preset state or federal standard, as is currently mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act and Arizona Learns legislation.
I am principal of a school the state has labeled "underperforming." Does this embarrass me? Not in the least. The label is a misnomer. Schools are simply brick and mortar. They do not perform, over or under. The label really means that the school's instructional staff is underperforming. Since I know that the teachers at my school are effective, dedicated professionals who are actually "overperforming," I am not the least bit embarrassed by being mislabeled as a result of this ridiculous legislation.
Color me defensive if you must, but I believe labeling schools is nothing more than name-calling, something most of us learned not to do in kindergarten. Labeling schools will not improve them and actually runs counter to the intended purpose.
The goal of the law is admirable and sounds great to voters. Schools will be held accountable to ensure that all children learn and succeed; the achievement gap between poor and rich kids will magically disappear; and no child will be left behind. The only phrase missing is that everyone will live happily ever after.
Like the emperor in the classic fairy tale, the No Child Left Behind Act has no clothes, but no one is saying so. The punitive nature of the legislation is forcing teachers to teach to a test instead of teaching children; consequently, there may be a superficial rise in test scores. However, for solving the problem of low achievement by at-risk children, it is tantamount to putting a Band-Aid on a headache.
Saying that "all" children must achieve to a predetermined standard on a test is like saying that all children in physical education classes must run a six-minute mile on a physical fitness exam. And saying that all children must show one year's academic growth for one year in school is like saying that all children in the school lunch program must gain 10 pounds and grow 2 inches in one year.
Children are not created equal in athletic ability or physical characteristics. Neither are they created equal in their ability to learn. Any first-year teacher knows this; apparently politicians do not. They have created a law that is focused on fixing the schools and just possibly the schools aren't broken.
I am not saying the schools are perfect or that we cannot improve. And I firmly believe that the education profession must be held accountable for what it does. But this is true of every profession, including law and medicine.
The professional educator, however, seems to be at the bottom of the food chain. Unlike any other profession, we are constantly asked to do more with less. And politicians, who say things that are politically expedient but not educationally realistic, relentlessly criticize us. Doctors and lawyers are never subject to such political philandering and shortsighted legislation.
Doctors are not required by law to cure all their patients. It is acknowledged that there are circumstances with each patient that are unique. Some patients will not follow their doctor's instructions; some simply have illnesses that cannot be cured.
Lawyers are not required by law to win all their cases. It is recognized that every client has a unique set of circumstances that will directly affect their attorney's ability to bring them success in court.
Teachers, on the other hand, do not fare so well with lawmakers. The law ignores the fact that schools in the low-income areas serving predominantly at-risk children have much higher percentages of children with special "medical problems and legal circumstances." Under the threat of a "failing label" teachers must cure every child irrespective of his or her illness; win every case in the courthouse of the classroom no matter the legal circumstance of the child.
In the Emperor's New Clothes, it takes a small child to tell the truth and bring the adults to their senses. Maybe our legislators need to come into the "underperforming" schools. They might learn some things they did not know before. Perhaps this would bring about some responsible legislation aimed at solving some of our problems instead of creating new ones, such as an exodus of quality teachers from the at-risk schools, where they are needed most.
Fairy tales usually have a happy ending, but I fear not with this one.
This commentary appeared in the Arizona Republic, Dec. 10, 2002
David Finley is the principal of Webster Elementary School in Mesa. He has been an educator for 32 years.